Tracking Down Gunter Grass

The Tin Drum is a novel I’ve seen on bookstore shelves for years. Books with especially hefty spines are easy to spot, and The Tin Drum, at more than 600 pages, takes up a good bit of shelf real estate. (Quick aside, I’ve always thought the spine of the book should be shown when you consider an online purchase, as it is only the spine you will see for the length of its lifetime on your bookshelf. The cover of the Vintage International edition shows a terrifying–and representative–image of a crazed little boy bashing away at a red and white drum. Might scare you off buying. However, the spine of The Tin Drum in this addition, besides being quite thick, is an unoffensive, woodsy green.)

Although I was well familiar with the book’s habitual presence on fiction seller shelves, until this past month I had little to no idea what The Tin Drum was about. I am now more than halfway through reading it and I still don’t know what it is about, but I feel strongly that I’ve been on its scent before. I had to check the publication date a couple times  (1959) while reading. The Tin Drum is strikingly similar in tone, plot, and style to several of my favorite novels, and I thought for a moment Gunter Grass had plagiarized half of 20th century literature. Turns out everyone else was stealing from him.

The Tin Drum is like an Illuminati coded message hidden in works of art across the years. Unreliable narrators with magical powers? You say Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children or perhaps Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, but Grass’ hero was their inspiration. The cartoonish picaresque of John Irving’s A Son of the Circus and A Prayer for Owen Meany are explicit homages to Grass. (Owen Meany even shares the same initials as The Tin Drum’s antihero Oskar Matzerath). The otherworldly, clown car cabaret of Thomas Pynchon’s work smells strongly of this progenitor. There’s a famous line about the Velvet Underground’s first album: Everyone who bought it started a band. So it seems with Gunter Grass’ magnum opus. The Tin Drum’s fingerprints mark much of the literary landscape of the past fifty years.

Being greatly influential does not mean that the book is at all enjoyable. On the contrary, The Tin Drum is discomfiting, demoralizing, and gross. You might assume that of any book about Nazism in Polish territories. But no, The Tin Drum is creepy, not in a Schindler’s Ark I-can’t-believe-the-Nazis-did-that sort of way, but rather in a Sophie’s Choice the-Nazis-are-crazy-but-so-is-everybody-else-in-this-book sort of way. A righteous American raised on a healthy diet of Hollywoodized Nazi horror might be forgiven for feeling a little disappointed with The Tin Drum. The regime is hardly given a moral dressing down like we’ve come to expect. The Nazis are there, but only in the narrator’s peripheral vision, as sidelined as they could be during war years where the towns where the novel is set were literally being blown to bits.

What The Tin Drum is about is a little boy named Oskar, very likely insane, who chooses to stop aging at three years old. As a German non-Jew living in Danzig during the war, this stunted growth saves Oskar’s life several times, such as when he is hiding out at the Polish Post Office on the wrong day or when the Russians occupy his home city at the end of the war. The tin drum of the title is Oskar’s constant companion. His obsession with this toy, gifted to him on his third birthday, occupies much of story. He covets his drum, plays it until it falls apart, and is willing to kill (or at least permit others to die) in order to acquire a fresh replacement. Oskar also is a bit of a superhero. He has the magical ability to shatter glass with a high pitched scream. Not only that, he can target the scream to selectively shatter, even carve hole in store windows in order to pilfer goods.

All this setup is clearly part of a Metaphor. Oskar’s character and his abilities mean Something. His drumming during a Nazi rally disrupts the orderly goosestepping, symbolizing the disorderly human spirit(?). His shatter-scream echoes the events of kristallnacht (?). His father dies while choking on a Nazi party pin… It all means Something. The trouble is I don’t find the cases others have made for what it means very compelling. As with many of the books Grass inspired, the semiotic straitjacket we want to bind The Tin Drum in doesn’t fit, and it is intellectually lazy to try to shoehorn every page into allegories. But don’t we try! Grass himself is just as guilty as the rest of us.  In an interview with the BBC, he readily concedes that the diminutive Oskar is meant to symbolize the childish attitude of the German people during the 1930s and 1940s. “At this time people were really not grown up, this childish reaction, this believing in [Nazism]…Oskar could be like a mirror to all the things that happened.”

Sometimes that is certainly the case, but often not. I firmly believe that, though Oskar may symbolically represent Something from time to time, there are long stretches of text when he is not a symbol but a genuine, diabolical cretin. He is mad after all! You can’t expect him to play by our literary rules.

Embracing an inconsistent Oskar is the first step to symbolholic recovery. I worry sometimes if we ardent readers, plugging our way through the great works of literature, become so fixated on solving the puzzle of a book, dissecting its references and symbols, that we end up never having fun reading it. I am certainly guilty of this! As I said at the start of this post, I came to The Tin Drum bent on spotting how it influenced later authors. But largely thanks to the fact that the novel is so long, such critical reading quickly becomes tiresome. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and a drum just a drum. Perhaps there is something liberating in the German literary tradition that allows their writers to escape such self-assigned strictures. In his homage to The Tin Drum, John  Irving makes it quite clear on every page that Owen Meany (a diminutive squeaky chap like Oskar) is a Jesus figure. The typology is strictly adhered to from start to finish. Oskar Matzerath defies strict typology. In the end, perhaps that makes him a more believable character.

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